On my second day in Basque country, I left Basque country — but only briefly.
We were heading to France in a few days, and I wanted to see more of northern Spain before wandering Basque villages on the other side of the border.
We set course for Santillana del Mar, a beautifully preserved medieval village of cobbled streets and tanned stone walls lined with noble houses built in the 15th to 18th centuries.
The entire old town is pedestrian-only. Guests can drive into the village to unload their luggage at a hotel, but they have to take their cars back to one of the parking lots on the edge of town for their stay.
Speaking of cars, the rental people at the airport upgraded me to something called a Volkswagen T-Roc. I was expecting stubby stalks and a giant windshield. Instead, I was treated to a typically German experience every time we got on the road.
The car lectured me nonstop about my driving, telling me when to shift gears, haranguing me about eco-friendly use of the accelerator, and scolding me to “take over steering” when I removed a hand from the wheel to shift.
It also tried to force me into the centre of the road anytime I moved too close to the shoulder to avoid a head on collision on narrow back roads. Aber ja, die regeln sind die regeln. You must drive in the centre because the book says so. To incorporate the laws of physics requires endless meetings and absolute consensus. PS: we’re going on strike.
I responded in the usual Berlin fashion by telling it to fuck off each time it told me what to do. But I digress. We were talking about Spain.
So yeah, Santillana del Mar. The town philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called “le plus joli village d’Espagne” in his existential novel La Náusea.
It’s a small place where every street seems to lead to the Colegiata de Santa Juliana, a 12th century Romanesque monastery. That street also led past a restaurant, reminding me I’d only had coffee that morning.
We stopped for lunch at a place with thick timber beams holding up its creaking floors. A big bowl of cocido montañés — a hearty stew of white beans, greens, potato, chorizo and black pudding — soon had me back in travel mode.
We wandered down to the Colegiata, whose arcaded cloister held a massive model of Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, with electrified figures enacting the events of the passion in the locations linked to the story. This was worth the small price of admission alone, even if just to stare at the model woodcutter cutting wood, the ox bobbing its head, and the centurion swinging his whip.
All that crucifixion contemplation is thirsty work, and a vinegar-soaked sponge on a stick wasn’t going to cut it.
But we were in the region of Cantabria, and Cantabria is cider country. It didn’t take long to find a sidería where we could get a taste of the land.
I’ve never been much of a cider fan, I find the types served in England and Ireland too sweet to drink more than a glass. But Spanish cider is a very different experience. It’s not sweet, but rather crisp, sharp and very dry with a natural apple flavour.
It’s also fermented using the apple’s own natural yeasts, with no added sugar, resulting in a slightly cloudy, surprisingly refreshing drink.
When in Spain, it is apparently necessary to pour your cider from a great height, with bottle held overhead and glass at a tilt at arms-length below, a feat which requires long appendages and excellent eyesight.
The point is to put air bubbles into the drink, building a light froth on top and releasing the natural flavours. Small portions only, please. You’re supposed to drink it in one or two gulps before pouring again. It’s like yoga, but with organic booze.
Thankfully, the sidería we visited had a helpful machine designed to achieve the proper height without dislocating one’s arms or requiring the use of bifocals. The grey-haired gentleman in this video agreed to demonstrate its use.
It was the perfect palate cleanser to prepare the way for another evening of pintxos and bar hopping back in Bilbao.